If you’re a beginning writer and you’re endeavoring to write funny dialogue for a character from “the olden days,” here’s a little insider’s tip: Shakespeare is an excellent resource. For instance, I recently pitched a series idea to my agent. It’s comic fiction for younger kids, and the first story is about pirates. I wanted my pirate dialogue to sound authentic, and also funny. So I went to my Shakespearean insults sources—of which there are many, like this one and this one—and found some great, salty pirate curses to use in my story. My pirate captain calls his crew “lily-livered clotpoles” and “swag-headed varlets.”
Those of us who write for middle grade and younger age groups have to be very careful about not using inappropriate language in our stories. The trick is to use dialogue that enlivens your story, but doesn’t get you in trouble.
A Facebook friend of mine posted this article that describes how Ancient Romans used to curse (politely) so they wouldn’t get into trouble.
Even back then, as now, people used replacement profanities—the equivalent of “darn” and “heck,” in polite company. The article cites Professor Kruschwitz, from the University of Reading’s Department of Classics, who did a study of ancient Roman exclamations and found some great dramatized expressions of contempt and dismay.
Says Kruschwitz, “The Romans employed a host of minced oaths to escape using foul language in public. Where in English one might wish to say ‘Judas Priest’, instead of blasphemous ‘Jesus Christ’, a Roman playwright had used the less offensive O Apella, o Zeuxis, the names of two famous Greek painters, for ‘by Apollo and Zeus’ . . . ‘They also used onomatopoetic terms such as butubatta or spattaro, perhaps close to something like ‘blah blah’ or ‘codswallop’, which conveyed someone’s contempt for another person. Dramatised expressions of contempt and dismay were also popular such as attatae or as we might say ‘shoot’ or ‘dang’.”
So next time your older brother does something that annoys you, you can call him a malus nequamque (that means big fat jerk–from this site). If you know Latin, that is. Or there’s always the ever-satisfying “mewling clay-brained joithead.”